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Flooded with Love and Needing Help

Neighbors founder Sharon Rainey seeks community's help in mailing care packages to U.S. troops in the Middle East.

Sharon Rainey has a problem.

"It's a great problem to have, but it's still a problem," said Rainey, the president and founder of the Great Falls based community e-mail network, Neighbors International, LLC.

Rainey, whose non-profit organization has been sending care packages and letters to U.S. troops in the Middle East since December of 2004, has too many donations on her hands, and not enough money or people to send them out.

"We need more money to pay for postage so we can mail them," said Rainey. "We have used up all the money that has been donated this year for mailing packages."

That was about $600, and Rainey says she estimates that it will cost at least $2,000 more to send out what she currently has in her office, which is about 300-400 boxes of material. In addition, she does not have the manpower to get everything wrapped up and shipped out in a timely fashion.

"I need people to sort and pack — and we need help filling out customs forms," said Rainey. "I had one volunteer, June Fox, come in last week and she wrapped 11 packages in under 25 minutes. That's the type of workers we need."

Rainey ended up with the flood of care package materials as the result of the generosity of students from Langley High School. Last month, Langley senior Julia Lanzara contacted Rainey about the possibility of participating in the program.

"I'm one of six officers in the National Honor Society at Langley and we do monthly projects," said Lanzara. "We had decided that we wanted to do a drive for the troops in February, and my mom belongs to the Great Falls Neighbors network, so she forwarded me the e-mails from the troops saying how much they appreciated the packages they had received."

THE LETTERS were all the motivation that Lanzara needed. She promptly contacted Sharon Rainey and asked her what the Langley National Honor Society needed to do to participate.

"I sent an e-mail out to the National Honor Society — and there are about 175 of us at Langley — and everybody had to bring $10 worth of supplies, as well as write a card," said Lanzara.

Based on feedback from the soldiers, Rainey had a list of preferred care package items.

"It had everything from men's health magazines to beef jerky," said Lanzara. "We gave tons of macaroni and cheese, and a lot of people gave Girl Scout cookies which was really nice because it was something from home."

Rainey says that it was interesting to see the various donations that were brought in by the students.

"Most unusual items include rock candy, Dr. Scholl's shoe inserts and a European shopping bag filled with all sorts of European goodies," said Rainey. "It was also interesting to see the commonalty among goods. We have enough Easy Mac, Pop Tarts and Ramen to feed a battalion."

The students collected the items at Langley and then brought them over to the Neighbors office on Feb. 27.

"I was on my way out the door and I saw all of these cars lined up in the parking lot with their trunks open," said Rainey.

That was when she realized that they were going to need to make some more room in the Neighbors office.

"This is the largest single donation that we have ever gotten," she said. "It was wonderful."

IN ADDITION, Langley's Spanish Honor Society heard about the drive and decided to do one of their own, contributing to the stockpile of treats. Rainey says she was particularly impressed with the content of the letters that were written by the students. In an e-mail sent out to her network, Rainey told members that they should be proud of the children that are being raised in the Great Falls community.

"These teens are not much younger than some of the soldiers their letters are going to," said Rainey. "But their words show some great insights as well as the typical teenage gossip and humor."

Rainey has already received some thank you letters from soldiers who received the packages she was able to send out before running out of money.

"It makes me feel thankful that there are people like you at home in our great country," said Sgt. David Mitnaul in his letter. "In Iraq, no one supports anyone else. It's very sad but it strengthens the motivation of myself and other soldiers to be here for all of you."

Sgt. Mitnaul added that the girl scout cookies were a big hit.

"I don't know what it is about hardened troops and that specific box of cookies... but it made us feel great — like snack time in elementary school."